The idea that remote work could improve people’s lives isn’t new. People have pondered the idea since the late 20th century, and some companies achieved major success with it in the 2010s. But it wasn’t till 2020, spurred by the urgency of the COVID pandemic, that companies widely adopted it—confirming its benefits in the public eye.
Employees who work remotely no longer deal with long commutes. They have more time and, often, more freedom to schedule it. Most report improvements in mental health, overall satisfaction, and even personal productivity. Many managers likewise note that their teams are more productive, even as businesses spend less on office space and upkeep.
Yet many people remain skeptical of remote work, if not outright opposed to it. Mainstream media often paints them as stodgy, Scrooge-like managers, obsessed with profit and control. But such simplifications overlook the flaws and risks of remote work—and if we’re to seize the promise of remote work, we have to confront these properly.
Present Peril: Remote Work has Left Some People Behind
Remote work may be a rising tide, but it hasn’t found everyone in a boat ready for deep waters. Studies on the remote work boom have found that several types of people aren’t poised to benefit from it—or at least not as much.
The McKinsey institute, in a survey of some 800 jobs across nine countries, found that over half of all workers have “little or no opportunity for remote work.” Jobs poorly suited to going remote tend to pay less, and are more prevalent in the Global South. The rise of remote work thus threatens to exacerbate inequalities based on work that is conventionally undervalued.
Inequalities also persist across categories of race, gender and other demographics. Black and Latino households in the US, for example, typically have more people, which means less space, less privacy, and strained internet bandwidth. Women, meanwhile, are still widely expected to bear most of the burdens of housework, and caring for children or the elderly. Since care services are harder to come by under lockdown, women often have to divide their energy between their day jobs and unpaid labor.
A kind of inequality also persists in hybrid work setups. Business leaders often work under the misconception that hybrid work is a middle ground. Conversely, it’s an entirely different approach to fully on-site or fully remote work, which requires careful balancing. Otherwise, it tends to favor whichever group dominates: on-site workers (usually) or remote ones.
Addressing Remote Work Inequality
The problems of equitability in remote work are both cultural and material, so it needs to be addressed in both regards. Having solid remote work policies is a good place to start.
On one hand, these should structure the channels and protocols of communication. All workers should be kept in the loop and provided equal opportunity to air their views and participate in major projects. Having well-organized and publicly documented communication levels the playing field.
At the same time, such policies should allow for flexibility in other regards. Outside of a few common—or synchronous—hours, workers should be allowed to keep whatever schedule suits them best. This is especially important for workers who may now have to manage households of home-schooled children or immunocompromised relatives. Without access to care services, flexible schedules will at least help them manage their time.
Finally, employers need to revise their budgets or compensation packages to help remote workers outfit their workspaces. Things like computers, noise-cancelling headsets and other peripherals are only the beginning. Businesses should be willing to cover, or at least subsidize the costs of chairs, desks, or space-saving alternatives to these. Not all homes were meant to be offices, and employers should do all in their capacity to make up the difference. And businesses must concentrate resources on employees who need them most—equitable, not uniform support.
Lessons from the Past: Policies Aren’t Enough
Policy is a good starting point, but it isn’t enough—and a story from the past helps demonstrate this. In 2005, Best Buy began an experiment spearheaded by two of their HR specialists, Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson. In order to reduce turnover, Ressler and Thompson instituted changes that gave employees increasingly more control over where, when and how often they worked. By the time they left Best Buy in 2008 to start a consultancy, their Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) model let employees take time off without prior notice, and to decline meetings if they didn’t think them useful.
ROWE had clear and well-tested policies, to say the least. It also achieved what it had aimed for (reducing turnover) and more besides. But in 2013, even as Ressler and Thompson were using their methods to help other businesses weather the fallout of the Global Financial Crisis, Best Buy went back to doing things the old-fashioned way.
Why? Cal Newport goes into deeper detail in this article but the bottom line is this: “ the pull of the simpler, traditional approach to work was strong, requiring a constant application of energy to resist.” Under Ressler and Thompson, employees and managers were inducted into the culture through exercises meant to deliberately shift their viewpoints. Later employees had no such conditioning and diluted the “[applied] energy” needed to resist. And that weakened the overall efficacy of the ROWE model.
Many insights from the ROWE model remain directly applicable today. For example, companies should actively work to eradicate so-called “sludge”: passive-aggressive comments about work routines or behavior. These include comments on when people take days off, what time they clock out and so on. Such comments inhibit employee agency and flexibility — and have no place in a truly flexible remote work setup.
Seizing the Liberating Promise of Remote Work
Looking to the future, though, we have more than just the ROWE model to work with. The past year-and-a-half has provided a wealth of information on remote work. We’ve learned, for example, that some of the increased productivity of remote work stems from remote overwork. It’s important, therefore, that managers encourage employees to set boundaries. Flexibility must be balanced with agency.
Furthermore, recent studies have shown that hybrid work presents dangers of its own. It’s often the worst of two worlds, rather than the best. But resources compiled from experience — such as this guide by the Bias Interrupters — can help leaders confront their subconscious bias toward the familiar, and against change.
In that regard, the Bias Interrupters’ guide shares the same core principle as ROWE. It requires leaders to deliberately embrace progress, and scrutinize its obstacles. And it requires them to do this again and again, until we can shake off the old norms. It’s the only way to ensure that remote work benefits as many as it can, as equitably as possible.